Russian,Syria, and the Limits of Military Power

(Alexander Natruskin | Reuters)


Six months after intervening on behalf of the Assad regime, Russian President Vladimir Putin has announced that “the main part” of the Russian military task force in Syria will begin to withdraw. Despite warnings that Barack Obama’s foreign policy had the U.S. “slouching toward World War III“—this isn’t some whacky prognostication from the margins of American foreign policy thought, it came from a former professor and NSA analyst and Naval War College professor—the Forever-War Consensus’s great erotic nightmare of World War III hasn’t come to fruition. I suppose they’ll have to find a more effect way of killing off all us pinko Millennials.But how did all these national security black-belts and counterterrorism maestro’s  with super-secret clearances get it so wrong?

But how did all these national security black-belts and counterterrorism maestro’s  with super-secret clearances get it so wrong? Let’s ignore the fact that these confidence men have managed to find a way to turn the art of being consistently wrong about every single international policy since the fall of the Soviet Union into lucrative careers as “serious” subject matter experts. Actually, let’s not.

What these “the world is a Tom Clancy novel” fail to understand is that the Kremlin approaches foreign policy from a self-aware position of weakness. As audacious and ambitious as Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria appear, they’ve been relatively measured. Russia isn’t trying to engage in nation-building, nor are they looking to engage in a five-trillion dollar war nor are they looking for new Nazis and the outbreak of World War III. What defines their effectiveness (so far) is not Bush/Reagan cowboy bellicosity, but a self-awareness masked by bombastic rhetoric.

Neo-conservatives like John McCain and Hillary Clinton—as well as whatever term we still need to come up to describe Ted Cruz and Donald Trump’s foreign policy—have long bemoaned the Obama administration’s “Don’t Do Stupid Shit” dictum as insufficiently muscular. As Jeffrey Goldblum’s article in The Atlantic notably shows, when Obama “peered into the Middle Eastern abyss and stepped back from the consuming void” and decided not to intervene in Syria after Assad gassed the town of Ghouta in 2013, the hawks decried the end of America’s influence on the international stage. America’s stature as a global leader seemed to erode even further when its old foe, Russia, invaded eastern Ukraine and sent troops to prop up the Assad regime.

American hawks have a strange fascination with Vladimir Putin. On one hand, they view the man as a threat. On the other, they admire his Machiavellian slyness and often laud him with the same misguided plaudits they usually reserve for Bismarck or (sigh) Reagan. They see in Putin’s roguish endeavor make Russia great again a model something to both aspire to and be wary of. They dream of a day when they might return to power and counter Russia’s intransigence with American steel and American justice. Deep in their CARC coated hearts, they wish the Obama Doctrine was more like Putins—cocksure, vigorous, and manly. If this sounds erotic, that’s because it is. To these “very serious” national security thinkers, there is no fetishistic totem more powerful than the shirtless Vladimir Putin projecting force upon less powerful nations.

What these “experts” continue to get wrong is that Russia is well aware of the limits of its military power. Any success Putin has had is due to the fact that his policies give consideration to the fact that his military (and the petrodollar that funds it) is stretched thin. As Max Fisher at Vox points out “for all of Putin’s sweeping language about Syria as akin to the war against the Nazi’s, his aims always appeared quite narrow”—to prevent Basha al-Assad from collapsing and to win Russian some political leverage during peace talks.

Put another way, while neo-conservative in the U.S. hate-admire Putin’s policies as everything they think the Obama Doctrine lacks, they’ve totally missed the fact that it is effective because:

  1. It considers the limited capability of military force as a foreign policy
  2. It avoids engaging in wholesale nation-building campaigns
  3. It is unconstrained by the moral principles that have defined how Americans view the use of the U.S. military

The first and second points have been covered already: the Kremlin’s foreign policy is (although misguided and immoral) realistic and measured. Ever since the Soviet Union collapsed, most Americans see the U.S. as the guiding force behind most of the events in the world. For example, many of us believe that global terrorism came into being because we were complacent and negligent, or genocides in Africa happen because Americans weren’t there to supervise the area. We see ourselves not simply as the world police, but as the arbiters of prosperity and freedom.

As a result, our interventions abroad have turned into extended and unrestrained endeavors to create peace through military force. The depths of our psychological investment in the idea that we can nation-build and destroy our way to a better world betrays our desire for a quick war. Whereas we endeavor to carve out streams of democracy in the hearts and minds of the foreigners we liberate through occupation, the Kremlin’s aims are much more concrete, limited, and attainable.

As for the third point, Russia has (at least so far) been successful in because it’s policies are not constrained by the moral principles or political values that guide America’s application of military force. Russian adventurism has survived everything from illegality to global condemnation to allies who either gas civilians or shoot them down in commercial airliners. If these same events happened during American military operations, political support for intervention would quickly erode.

For all of its faults, our nation’s political system bends towards not committing atrocities and war crimes. Hawks are attracted to the illiberality of people like Putin. While they love to talk about freedom and democracy, they tend to view them as reasons to carry out wars, not fragile political concepts. The Global War on Terror provided hawks with an irresistible opportunity to conflate adventurism with the preserving the nation’s liberal republicanism (“gotta fight them there so we don’t have to fight them here”); however, Americans widely rejected this neo-conservative farce in 2006 and 2008. Although it seems like there is a growing attraction to another Forever-War in the Middle East in 2016, Americans remain wary about doing stupid shit.

So while “security experts” wax fantastic about the perceived failures of the Obama doctrine, all while they watch YouTube videos of soldiers blowing crap up to a soundtrack by Drowning Pool, we need to understand how terribly wrong they have always been about Syria, Russia, and the limits of military force. We also need to accept the fact that Putin’s gamble may not work out (hello, Iran).

If you happen to be one of those national security experts who still believes we can dictate the fate of the Middle East through hardcore spying and military force, this final paragraph’s for you. Come home. Grow your hair out. Try taking a picture while not standing “at ease.” Read a novel written by someone who isn’t Niall Ferguson (may I suggest something by an excellent YA author?). And remember, Putin isn’t some super-genius running circles around our POG president—he’s just running circles around you.


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